Consider yourself a musician? Well, did you know that only about one in 10,000 people have absolute pitch, or perfect pitch?

In music, pitch is the frequency (cycles per second) of a note. People with absolute pitch have the ability to identify a given note without the need of a tuning fork or other external reference. Just like most of us who can recognize the colour red because of its specific wavelength (650 nm) some musicians can instantly identify “A below middle C” simply by hearing its frequency (220 Hertz).

 

Did You Know?
A few well-known musicians with absolute pitch include Ludwig Van Beethoven, Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, and Jimi Hendrix.

Far more common among musicians is relative pitch, which refers to the ability to identify a musical interval, or the difference in pitch between one note and another reference note. For example, consider the popular nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (click here to play). If you can sit down at a piano and play this tune, you are using relative pitch to go from one note to the next.

 

Did You Know?
While often beneficial for tuning and composition, absolute pitch can also be a hindrance to musicians. Possessors of absolute pitch sometimes complain that they do not hear melodies, but instead hear pitch names passing by.

The vast majority of people who have absolute pitch received musical training before the age of six. Early musical training is necessary because a person would have a hard time recognizing a pitch if he or she had not learned to call that pitch “middle C,” for example, at a young age.

Furthermore, speakers of tonal languages such as Chinese or Vietnamese are nine times more likely to have absolute pitch. In tonal languages, the same sound is pronounced with different tones to produce words with different meanings. In a study of music academy students, 60 percent of Mandarin-speaking students who began their musical training before the age of six possessed absolute pitch.

A research group at the University of California, San Francisco is trying to determine if there are specific genes that influence absolute pitch. As absolute pitch is correlated with memory, language skills and development, identifying genes that contribute to absolute pitch may shed light on these processes.

Learn More!

Test for absolute pitch

Read more about Diana Deutsch’s studies correlating tonal languages and absolute pitch

Read about the genetics of absolute pitch study

Article first published January 23, 2012

Photo Credit: iStock

Michelle Po

I am currently doing a PhD at the University of Toronto in Molecular Genetics. I'm studying neuronal connectivity using the microscopic nematode Caenhorabditis elegans as a model organism. When I'm not in the lab, I enjoy playing ultimate frisbee, photography, and do-it-yourself crafty projects.


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Avatar  jj

I used to have a friend who had absolute pitch - I was very jealous. It's really interesting to hear how it works!